Lessons in history and humanity plus drama, unconditional love and insight into one of the most difficult to understand of all diseases — Alzheimer’s — make Debra Dean’s “The Madonnas of Leningrad” a superb, satisfying read.
There’s a sampling of an art appreciation class, too, and brief, maybe too brief snatches of modern family dynamics. But those glimpses into contemporary life form the perfect background to better contrast with the values of the Russians who survived — and even those who didn’t survive — the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.
With the war there is starvation and death and ruin, to be sure, but tremendous self sacrifice, too, and life, life so valued, life so amazing, captured so well in one scene, where women who have survived the siege learn that the story’s protagonist, Marina, is expecting and, after a winter of death, line up to touch her stomach and to feel the baby kick in her womb.
A tremendous sense of irony pours from the pages. In the godless Soviet Union the invaluable art collection of the Hermitage Museum, including precious images of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child, is crated and trucked away to be saved from ruin or confiscation by the approaching German army.
At the suggestion of another Hermitage tour guide, young Marina, who later in life cannot remember the names of her own family members, commits to memory of all these wonderful madonnas — the Rubens, the da Vinci, the van Dyck, the Rembrandt and more — storing in her “memory palace” not only the details of the works and the stories they tell but even where they hung on the walls of the czar’s former Winter Palace.
It’s an act of mutual benefit. Not only does Marina save the memory of the art to share with those who may never have the chance to see them, but doing so gives her a reason to live, to survive at a time when bombs, cold, starvation and illness take the lives of thousands during the siege.
And, while this isn’t an outwardly religious novel, as the situation worsens for those freezing, starving, cowering from the bombs and removing the corpses of those who die each day, even a strict non-believer decides a little prayer couldn’t hurt.
“The Madonnas of Leningrad” is not a new book. Published in 2006, it garnered a number of honors. But as timely as the topic of Alzheimer’s is, you would think someone would make a movie of this terrific story.
If you choose to read the book — and even if you don’t — you’ll find images of some of the famous works of art named within at this website, along with excerpts of how they were described in the book. Start googling the paintings and you could lose several hours of your day!
Dean also mentions the Jordan Staircase in her novel. Here’s why: